When communism was in full swing, I co-authored a series of articles for The Washington Post showing how ideology was stifling economic development in the Soviet bloc.
My colleague Bob Kaiser and I reported how Marxist-Leninist doctrine hampered banking and business reforms in Hungary. Poland didn't allow tiny, privately-owned farms to get bigger and more efficient. "That wouldn't be socialism," communist officials explained, often with a rueful shrug of the shoulders.
The communist regimes finally collapsed under the weight of a philosophy that was too far removed from the realities of the societies they controlled. So it's disconcerting to see the U.S. in a similar ideological bind now. Congress seems paralyzed by a radical political movement that has boxed in the Republican Party in the House and prevented pragmatic fiscal compromises that are within fairly easy reach.
Consider this: The chief author of the GOP's new House budget proposal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), is an acknowledged disciple of the late political philosopher Ayn Rand, an advocate of a Utopian system that would eliminate almost all government involvement in the economy. To pass an ideological litmus test, Republican office seekers must sign a written "pledge" that they will never vote to raise taxes. Another organization, the Club for Growth, has called for a purge of congressional Republicans, even ones with overall conservative voting records, who deviate from the hard right line.
"Big government liberals inhabit the Democratic Party, but they are far too common within the Republican Party as well," Chris Chocola, the Club's president said in a statement calling for primary challenges against nine House "Republicans in Name Only."
Ideology (defined by Wikipedia as a "system of abstract thought applied to public matters") has its place. The Tea Party, which came out of nowhere in the summer of 2009, was imbued with the fervor of a big idea, that Big Government threatened the broad ideals of liberty and individualism at the heart of the American democratic experiment.
In its early days, it also gave voice to concrete grievances over the Obama Administration's fiscal policies and Washington's handling of the Wall Street bailout. No one who wandered the Washington Mall during the movement's demonstrations in 2009 could help being impressed by the display of citizens new to politics exercising their democratic rights. My guess is that Thomas Jefferson, the original small government radical, would have smiled on the Tea Party patriots on the Mall. "The spirit of resistance to government... will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not at all," he wrote Abigail Adams in 1787.
But Jefferson could not have foreseen that the anti-government philosophy he championed for Virginia farmers (and Pennsylvania whiskey distillers) would be appropriated by a network of well-financed think tank ideologues and professional politicians backed by wealthy plutocrats with a Randian take on what is best for America. In taking on a cartoon figure of Big Government, Republicans risk seeming to put their convictions above the interests of the country.
Conservatives argue that their liberal and progressive opponents are just as ideological, and there is some validity in that. The social movements that changed America in the last 150 years were also based on an abstract idea, that a strong central government was an asset in the struggle for social and economic justice and the drive to develop the economy into the strongest in the world.
Federalism achieved an expansion of legal rights for blacks, minorities, women, gays and the handicapped. It won minimum wages and safer working conditions, regulation of air and water pollution, and a vast economic safety net for farmers and low income people.
Federalism was also good for business, strengthening social stability (after street riots in the 1960s), but more important, expanding the great American market for housing, food, and health care services through the creation of housing vouchers and food stamps for the poor, and Medicaid for the sick, elderly and destitute.
The federalist goals were concrete, not abstract. And none of them were won without compromises in bitter partisan battles. It's that willingness to compromise -- or to recognize the vast achievements of the society the modern federalists built -- that often seems lacking in the ideological fight being waged by the radical right.
The sequester that took effect March 1 is a case in point. Some House Republicans have called it the Tea Party's biggest success to date. But a success for whom? The axe falls entirely on the "discretionary" accounts funding bricks-and-mortar federal department and agencies that are the most visible symbols of government. But it means curtailed investment in the programs that keep America competitive, healthy and strong: military preparedness, space exploration, national parks, tourism, educational programs for low-income students, and research that could lead to cures for illness and advances in technology and science.
"That is the component of the budget which, for all practical purposes, is the seed corn of the future," G. William Hoagland, former Republican staff director at the Senate Budget Committee told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, a deal to solve the most serious fiscal problem -- health care spending in the next decade that could explode the deficit -- remains stubbornly elusive. That's not because common sense solutions are lacking. Two blue ribbon commissions and dozens of independent studies have outlined a host of possible long-term fixes to the nation's debt woes. These would involve a balance of spending cuts and new revenues -- which might involve, say, reducing oil industry tax breaks or levying a modest tax on stock market transactions.
Conservative Republicans in Congress are in a strong position to be magnanimous. Since the summer of 2011, they have won legislation that will shave some $2 trillion off federal spending in the next decade. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said last week, "I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes."
It won't be easy to bridge the ideological gulf. Democrats call many business tax breaks "loopholes." But ideological purists on the right don't consider them to be subsidies at all. In their view, taxes are a form of forced confiscation that lack legitimacy. (The Club for Growth supports eliminating all taxes on corporations.)
Democrats don't dispute the need to make government leaner and less wasteful. But they assume government has an important role. That isn't necessarily the view of the Tea Party right. (Ayn Rand, icon of many in this generation of GOP politicians, called for "a separation of state and economics" and a "completely unregulated economic life."
"Their view is that it is all waste and should all be cut," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. Lilly said the GOP had been "coopted by libertarian ideologues" who appear committed to shrinking government "without regard for the real world consequences."
In that view, the right is more extreme than many of its own icons and forefathers. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation raising taxes (not to mention the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which liberalized abortion while he was serving as governor of California).
And no less a figure than the Austrian-born economic theorist Friedrich Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom, a bible for free market conservatives, believed in strong government to enforce regulations and provide a safety net for the poor.
"The case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong... There is no incompatibility in principle between the state's providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom," Hayek concluded.
Like Reagan, and other pragmatic conservatives who preceded today's far right, Hayek had strong opinions about the proper course for the economy and society. But they didn't let abstract convictions blind them to what was possible politically in order to get things done.
They weren't radicals of the kind German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned about when he wrote about the destructive power of absolute belief. "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies," he cautioned.
History is littered with examples of that.